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A diet of grass

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Retired Brigadier is no ordinary chronicler. In fact, he is no ordinary military professional, either. While serving in the Pakistan army, he was directly associated with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme during the 1990s and early 2000s. When Pervez Musharraf deposed in a military coup in 1999, drafted the military dictator’s first speech to the nation. It is no surprise then that his book, , benefitted from the generous access provided to him by the Pakistan army.

The book aims to provide the first comprehensive account of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, but falls short of being “nuanced, scholarly and clear-headed”. Brigadier Khan stays true to Pakistan army’s narrative and provides a valuable insight into its institutional mindset. The title of the book is drawn from Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s rhetorical statement in 1965 that “If India makes an atom bomb, then even if we have to feed on grass and leaves – or even if we have to starve – we shall also produce an atom bomb.” But India didn’t have a bomb in January 1972, when at a conference in Multan, Bhutto, as prime minister, called upon Pakistani nuclear scientists to begin a nuclear weapons programme.  

The national humiliation of military surrender to India in 1971 lay at the core of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons acquisition narrative: “Never again” would Pakistan be subjected to disgrace at Indian hands. The perception that the world was opposed uniquely to an “Islamic bomb” became a source of Pakistani national pride; and the bomb has since become integral to its national identity.

Brigadier Khan plays his part in furthering the narrative about a hegemonistic, Hindu India. He claims that on December 16, 1971, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi stood before the Indian Parliament and, amid a thunderous standing ovation, stated that India had “avenged several centuries of Hindu humiliation at the hands of Mughal emperors and sultans”. I personally checked the parliamentary records for 1971 and nowhere were these words, or words even close to this, spoken by the Indian PM. In fact, her parliamentary speech on December 17 assured the Pakistani people “that we have no enmity towards them. There are more things in common than those which divide us. We would like to fashion our relations with the people of Pakistan on the basis of friendship and understanding”.

The development of the nuclear bomb is covered in detail, mainly as a competition between the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, headed by Munir Ahmad Khan, and Khan Research Laboratory, headed by A Q Khan. Because of the discovery of his smuggling racket, A Q Khan’s role in the making of the bomb is played down. The technical and material support from China and Libya is glossed over in a narrative meant to showcase Pakistani scientists’ tenacity and ingenuity in delivering against all odds.

Pakistan conducted its first “cold test” (actual detonation of a complete nuclear bomb, but with natural uranium in the core to avoid fission reaction) in March 1983 and started designing a deliverable bomb in 1988. By May 1995, having conducted 24 cold tests, Pakistan had a nuclear device deliverable by a fighter aircraft. This means that when Pakistani foreign minister threatened his Indian counterpart during the 1990 crisis, Pakistan had an untested device that could only be theoretically dropped by an aircraft.

Due to India’s air superiority, Pakistan no longer depends on aircraft to deliver the nukes. Short- and medium-range missiles, copies of Chinese and North Korean missiles, are now its primary delivery mechanism, and producing them its military priority second only to the production of nuclear weapons. But Pakistan’s biggest security challenge is neither its fissile material stock nor its delivery system. In 2009, a US Congressional report warned: “Were one to map terrorism and weapons of mass destruction today, all roads would intersect in Pakistan.” With the increasing radicalisation of Pakistani society and its army, notwithstanding the assurances of security checks enumerated in the book, the danger of jehadis getting a bomb is graver today. It is scary that Pakistan can’t find anyone trustworthy to replace the long-retired but still serving Lt General Khalid Kidwai to oversee its nuclear arsenal.

During the 1998 Indo-Pak composite dialogue, Pakistan refused to accept India’s “no-first-use” proposal unless India agreed to “no use of conventional force”. Indian diplomats rightly insisted that the option to use conventional force was open as long as Pakistan continues to wage proxy wars against India. In any case, a no-first-use policy goes against the twin objectives of Pakistan’s nuclear programme: one, to prevent India from destroying or overwhelming Pakistan; and two, to deter an Indian conventional attack. What is left unstated is that an Indian conventional attack will be triggered by a terror attack emanating from Pakistani soil, and the best way to prevent it is for the Pakistan army to break its nexus with the jehadis. But using jehadis has been Pakistan military’s strategy since 1947. Clearly, nuclear weapons are meant to protect the Pakistan army and its friendly jehadis, while the Pakistani masses remain destined, in Bhutto’s prophetic words, to “eat grass ... even go hungry”.


EATING GRASS: THE MAKING OF THE PAKISTANI BOMB
Feroz Hassan Khan
Stanford University Press;
368 pages; Rs 1,600

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